By John Wawrow, AP Sports Writer
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — The Buffalo Bills and Rogers Communications have held talks to renew the Bills' annual series of games in Toronto, leaving the team's owner Ralph Wilson optimistic an extension will be reached before the current deal expires after next season.
"Oh yeah, we want to renew it. We were talking to them recently, and they want to renew it," Wilson told The Associated Press by phone from his home in suburban Detroit on Thursday. "I think that Buffalo can have a very successful franchise with embracing Rochester and Toronto as we move forward."
Wilson said one of Rogers' key conditions for renewing the deal is lowering ticket prices after the Toronto-based communications giant acknowledged initial prices were too high, averaging around $180 per seat.
High ticket prices led to series organizers having difficulty selling out games at the 54,000-seat Rogers Centre.
Reducing ticket revenue also has the potential of lowering the price tag of a new deal after Rogers paid $78 million to have the Bills play eight games — including five annual regular-season games — in Canada's largest city.
The current deal expires after the Bills play a preseason and regular-season game in Toronto next year.
A Rogers spokeswoman said the company had nothing to announce at this time.
Wilson touched on several other topics, including the state of his team which, at 5-9, is in the midst of a seven-game slide and will miss the playoffs for a 12th straight season.
Wilson said his only message to fans was "patience" because he projects it's going to take several more years to build a contender after the team essentially started from scratch a year ago under new general manager Buddy Nix and new coach Chan Gailey.
Wilson gave full support to Ryan Fitzpatrick, saying the criticism directed at the struggling quarterback has been unfair.
He said Fitzpatrick's struggles are due to injuries to numerous starters and the lack of a supporting cast.
"We've got to get receivers. If he hasn't gotten anybody to throw to, he's not going to win many games," Wilson said. "We think he's a good quarterback, and we're going to stick with him and get him some better players, get him some runners, some tight ends that don't get injured and some wide receivers and we'll be OK."
Fitzpatrick has been the target of criticism in going 1-7 since signing a six-year, $59 million contract extension following the team's bye week. After throwing 14 touchdowns versus seven interceptions in helping the team get off to a 5-2 start, Fitzpatrick has thrown eight TDs and 12 interceptions during the seven-game skid.
Injuries have played a key role in the slide.
Buffalo has 15 players on injured reserve, including nine regulars. The Bills have lost their top offensive threat, RB Fred Jackson, as well as their top lineman, C Eric Wood. The defense is just as banged up, playing without DT Kyle Williams and CB Terrence McGee.
"I don't think I've ever seen so many injuries in some 60 years that I've been involved in the game," Wilson said. "We had to lead the league in something, and we do: We lead the league in injuries."
The Bills' series in Toronto is regarded as crucial to the small-market franchise's future in western New York.
The deal was reached in 2008 with plenty of fanfare in making the Bills the NFL's only team to play annual games outside the United States.
The Bills have benefited, gaining a boost in season-ticket sales from a growing base of fans from southern Ontario. Rogers has benefited, too, combining its NFL partnership with its numerous entities to capitalize on the league's popularity across Canada.
The NFL is on board in wanting to keep the series going. It not only plays into the league's attempt to globalize the sport, but is also considered key in keeping the small-market Bills viable in western New York.
"Right now our focus would be making what we've done here with the Bills playing the one game in Toronto successful," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said during a visit to Ralph Wilson Stadium in October. "The more we work on that and focus on that, makes it even better for this market and for Toronto because for us, it's all one region."
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